Shoegazing frontman to surf-loving folkie may not seem like a logical musical progression. Yet, Neil Halstead’s journey from seminal nineties band Slowdive to dreamy alt-country strummers Mojave 3 (and two folk-infused solo offerings) has gradually earned him acclaim as one of Britain’s best and most underrated songwriters.
Now ditching the sun-drenched folk and sonic flourishes of his 2008 sophomore album, Oh! Mighty Engine (his first for Jack Johnson’s Brushfire label), Palindrome Hunches is more likely to conjure up images of drafty winter evenings than blissful campfire singalongs.
Recorded live with the Band Of Hope at a junior school in Wallington, the record’s piercing intimacy is apparent in opener 'Digging Shelters'. Its sombre piano plinks and Halstead’s whiskey-soaked delivery of “it’s all broke down” give the impression that he’s confiding in you in the corner of a low-lit, dingy pub. Elsewhere, 'Tied Up In You' weaves intricate guitars and trembling violins into a brooding cinematic climax. However, it’s the title-track’s list of daft palindromes that really shows off Halstead’s eccentric pop songcraft to stunning effect.
There are times when the songs don’t live up to their mesmerizing arrangements. Violins soar in the moody “Love Is A Beast”, but it’s a re-tread of what has already been done to catchier effect on the record. Despite its intriguing subject matter of an Austrian pianist who had his right arm amputated in World War I, 'Wittgenstein’s Arm' plods into easy listening territory.
It’s tender Americana-tinged moments like 'Hey, Daydreamer' – where Halstead pleads over a bouncing piano riff, “I wanna see everything” – that remind listeners of his ability to craft gorgeous melodies that could get even the most hardened soul weeping near a frosty window.
Through its stark soundscapes, whimsical flourishes and vivid storytelling, Palindrome Hunches finally sees Halstead shaking off Drake and Dylan comparisons and finding his own voice. Even though it’s not a classic in the vein of his early shoegazing efforts, swapping reverb pedals for stripped back folk has helped him create his most assured and heartbreaking solo album to date.